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Theological Publications





Tillich on the Historical Jesus

and Christian Faith

Robert M. Price


One day the Pope received a phone call from an archaeologist in Palestine. "Holy Father," the voice said, "I don't quite know how to tell you this, but we have discovered what prove beyond doubt to be the very bones of Jesus!" Hanging up, the Pope convened his closest advisors. Explaining the situation, he asked the stunned clerics for suggestions. One stammered, "Holy Father, I believe there is a theologian in America who might be able to help us. His name is Paul Tillich." Wasting no time, the Pope called Tillich's office in New York. "Herr Tillich, I'm afraid we have quite a problem here, and we hope perhaps you can advise us. Archaeologists in the Holy Land have discovered the bones of our Lord Jesus!" Silent seconds passed, followed by Tillich's heavy German accent: "Ach... he lived?"

            This joke took its rise from the fact that Paul Tillich, when questioned, is said to have admitted that his faith would survive intact even if it could be proven that Jesus never existed. This hadith purports to present us with a piece of radical theology, and it leads us to consider in somewhat greater detail Tillich's published views on the historical Jesus.

            Tillich is unambiguous in his admission that the "quest for the historical Jesus" was a failure. The sources at the historian's disposal are not such as to make a biography of Jesus possible. Nor is this any accident. The reason is the very nature of the documents. The gospels are not attempts at biographies. They betray no such interest. Rather, they are testimonies of faith made by people who have become believers in Jesus Christ, receivers of the New Being made manifest in him. The quest for the historical Jesus sought to get back behind these faith-testimonies to a Jesus whose image would not be obscured by dogma and pious legend. But such an attempt not only refuses to take seriously the kerygmatic witness of these documents ("Yes, yes, whatever you say, but..."), but also goes on to assume a fundamental incongruity between Jesus as he actually lived and the portrait of Jesus given in the gospel proclamation ("... no more nonsense, now: what was he really like?").

            "Raiders of the historical Jesus" often made their hypothetical Jesus into a founder-teacher rather than a savior as traditionally understood by faith. But even when it became clear that the quest was doomed, that there was no hope of reconstructing Jesus as he was, this trend continued insofar as scholars still sought to make the teaching attributed to Jesus the basis for Christian theology. This way it should not matter whether this or that saying could be connected with Jesus himself with any confidence. A particular teaching might have been borrowed from contemporary Judaism, what of it? It was the content that mattered. This approach Tillich dubs "legalistic liberalism." This way, the teaching of (or ascribed to) Jesus functions as a Christian equivalent to Old Testament law (as, one ought to point out, it always has among the Anabaptists). This understanding must result, Tillich reckoned, in the forfeiting of grace. (It is clear Tillich is viewing the matter through the lens of his inherited Lutheranism with its law/grace dichotomy.)

            Bultmann's approach, Tillich says, is but slightly different. Tillich calls it "existentialist legalism." Jesus' message is seen not as a group of discrete teachings, universal in their application as a guide for life, but as a concrete eschatological demand: Jesus' hearers must decide for the kingdom of God! But again, says Tillich, there is no word of grace to tell the potential believer how he is to respond, or to make such a response possible. But is this a fair representation of Bultmann? Tillich seems to have taken Bultmann's reconstruction of Jesus' message (cf. Jesus and the Word) and assumed that Bultmann made this the foundation of Christian theology or of the gospel message. He did not. Actually, Bultmann took his departure from the kerygma about Christ, not the preaching done by Jesus himself. This is why, for Bultmann, Jesus is not one of the voices, but only one of the presuppositions, of New Testament theology. The New Questers (Robinson, Fuchs, Ebeling, Bornkamm, Käsemann,  Braun, et. al.) might be better targets for the charge of "existentialist legalism" since they do tie in Jesus' proclamation with Christian theology in a way analogous to that suggested by Tillich for Bultmann. In fact, Bultmann's own position is strikingly similar to Tillich's, as we will soon see.

            So these various attempts to substitute the historical reconstruction of Jesus or his teaching for the gospels' picture of Jesus fall far short of the mark. But that is not the end of the problem. Tillich contends that when we speak of "Jesus Christ" we are saying two distinct (though inseparable) things. First, it is Jesus who is the Christ. Through him, the concrete individual Jesus of Nazareth, the New Being was manifested. Second, Jesus is the Christ only because he was recognized and received as the bearer of the New Being. This recognition demonstrates the reality of his manifestation of the new Being. The early witnesses attest it. Thus the reception is quite as important as the manifestation. One could say it is the other side of the coin. As Tillich says elsewhere, without the reception of revelation there has been no revelation. It is precisely here that the "quest for the historical (i.e., non-gospels) Jesus" badly missed the point, as far as Tillich is concerned. The gospels as testimonies enshrine for us the reception of the New Being as manifested in Jesus Christ. Seen this way, to disregard and to bypass the gospels' interpretation of Jesus Christ is to miss or even to deny the Christhood of Jesus. The resulting reconstruction might be of antiquarian interest but would have not a thing to do with the New Being. This view is directly parallel to that of Bultmann. Bultmann holds that the only Christ we could possibly be interested in religiously is the Risen Lord of the kerygma. To go behind this preaching of the Easter faith, asking, "What was Jesus really like?" is surely a legitimate historical inquiry, not to be squelched in the name of dogma. But we cannot but repudiate such a quest if its motive is a search for a religious security (as with Ritschl and with the Jesus Seminar today).

            Before considering Tillich's alternative in greater detail, it is important to focus briefly on an important issue underlying the whole discussion. Tillich shows himself very sensitive to the danger implied in both the fundamentalist repudiation of historical criticism on the one hand and the liberal quest for the historical Jesus on the other. Both approaches in the last analysis tend to make the believer's faith in Jesus dependent on the probabilities of historical research. Fundamentalists find themselves defending the most precarious and improbable apologetical arguments in order to safeguard the gospel-portrait of Jesus as historically inerrant. Liberals' reconstructions of Jesus and his teachings are so tenuous and arbitrary that no two liberals come up with the same reconstruction! In both cases, not only is it true that faith is being trivialized to the level of holding more or less probable opinions, but the believer is deprived of any real security of faith. His confidence is either suspended on a thin apologetical thread ready to snap at any moment, or it is blown about by every wind of changing historical theory. Surely faith must rest on a more certain foundation, immune to the uncertainties of historical scholarship.

            In this concern, Tillich reflects his predecessors Wilhelm Herrmann and Martin Kähler: "it is a fatal drawback that no historical judgment, however certain it may appear, ever attains anything more than probability. But what sort of a religion would that be which accepted a basis for its convictions with the consciousness that it was only probably safe?" "It is a fatal error to attempt to establish the basis of faith by means of historical investigation. The basis of faith must be something fixed; the results of historical study are continually changing."1 (Herrmann)

            "The attachment of the certainty of Christian conviction to the unpredictable results of historical research [is] a stumbling block... I have become increasingly certain that my Christian faith cannot have a causal connection with the 'authenticity' of the Gospels."2 (Kähler)

            Tillich is quick to point out the corollary of this reassurance. If faith cannot rest on historical research, neither can it control historical research. Too often it tries to do just that. The orthodox apologists sought to control the reading of the gospel data according to prior, arbitrary dogma. Liberals created various "historical Jesuses" in their own liberal Protestant images. No, says Tillich, though faith may indeed illuminate the reading of a historical text, this is a religious experience, not a method of historiography.

            If faith cannot guarantee in advance certain historical conclusions, just what, if anything, can it guarantee? Nothing but itself, but that is to say quite a lot. Faith is the guarantee of the New Being in the concrete, finite life of the believer. This is a matter of present experience, not of historical probability. And in a sort of chain reaction manner, this certitude implies the historical existence of another concrete life in whom the New Being was first made manifest. Where do we find a representation of this life? We find it in the New Testament portrait of Jesus. Historical criticism cannot guarantee any given facet of the picture, not even the sure attribution of the name "Jesus" to the figure.3 Nonetheless, this picture in its general outline certainly enshrines the impression the disciples had of this "Christ." And it is through this picture that men and women now find New Being themselves, as they have for the past two thousand years.  

            Here again one may observe a strong similarity between Tillich on the one hand and Herrmann and Kähler on the other, despite the real differences between the three. Tillich notes appreciatively Herrmann's attempts to approach Christ by the avenue of Christian experience. He objects that Herrmann "psychologized" rather than "ontologized" Jesus as the New Testament itself does. Nonetheless, the basic similarity is important. Herrmann also seems to work backward from the believer's experience of Jesus Christ thanks to the gospel portrait of him to the substantial reliability of that picture in portraying Jesus. "[W]hen we speak of the historical Christ we mean that life of Jesus which speaks to us from the New Testament, as the disciples' testimony to their faith, but which, when we perceive it, always comes home to us as a miraculous revelation. That historical research cannot give us this we know. But neither will it ever take this from us by any of its discoveries. This we believe, the more we experience the influence that this picture of the glory of Jesus has upon us."4

            Kähler also disagrees with Herrmann in making a psychological sketch of Jesus the basis for the origin and transmission of faith in Christ. Yet he joins him in talking in terms of the effectiveness of the biblical picture of Christ as the catalyst for faith, as well as its ultimate origin in Jesus himself. "[W]hat was the decisive influence that Jesus had upon posterity? According to

the Bible and church history it consisted in nothing else but the faith of his disciples, their conviction that in Jesus they had found the conqueror of guilt, sin, temptation, and death." "If now, with the due recognition given to their differences, the first eyewitnesses were nevertheless in agreement on the picture of Christ which they handed down... then this picture must have been impressed upon their hearts and minds with an incomparable and indelible preciseness rich in content."5

            For Kähler, like Tillich, this picture is that of the New Testament gospels, not some "historical Jesus" reconstruction. Tillich said of Kähler's work: "I do not believe that Kähler's answer to the question of the historical Jesus is sufficient for our situation today."6 But despite his declaration of disagreement with Herrmann and Kähler at some points, Tillich's position is fundamentally similar. All three begin with the Christian's experience of the New Being (freedom from sin, etc.) as mediated by the New Testament picture of Jesus, which experience in turn guarantees the substance of that picture as a portrayal of Jesus' effect on the original disciples and evangelists. All three seem to feel they have paid adequate tribute to historical criticism by allowing that any particular detail of the Jesus picture may be questioned. Yet have they paid the devil his due? Or are they still in danger of having their faith undermined by historical delving?

            Van A. Harvey contends that such schemas as these remain dependent on a historical judgment that the New Testament picture of Jesus must represent a real person and not, say, an abstract allegorical character or a wholly fictive protagonist. Kähler anticipates this criticism and contends that sinful men could not invent such a portrait of a sinless Jesus.7 Herrmann is content to let the overpowering experience of Jesus' inner life (as conveyed by the biblical picture of him) overrule any doubts that the believer is dealing with a total abstraction instead of a real person. What artificial abstractions have been added to the gospel portrait are of the same character as the reality itself and only tend to reinforce it.8 That is, people would have been tempted to embroider the Jesus tradition only with sayings or stories that rang true to the historical Jesus, even if some of those things he didn't actually say or do.

            Tillich certainly seems to leave himself open to Harvey's criticism. Tillich admits that if the portrait of Jesus were a created fiction, or an abstraction, this would be insufficient. "Without the concreteness of the New Being, its newness would be empty." "A picture imagined by the same contemporaries of Jesus would have expressed this untransformed existence and their quest for a New Being. But it would not have been the New Being."9 In other words, even if his name turned out not to be "Jesus," the existence of an individual corresponding to the New Testament portrait is necessary to Christian faith. Tillich admits that even the barest theoretical possibility that the Jesus of the biblical records did not exist would be "destructive for the Christian faith."10 It seems that Harvey is correct in charging that Tillich has not succeeded in bridging the gap of uncertainty. The place of Jesus in Christian faith remains dependent on a historical judgment, i.e., that the gospels' picture of Jesus actually represents a real historical individual of whatever name.11 In addition, Harvey points out, the contours of this picture of Jesus may well vary with the exegete who tries to present it (shades of the quest for the historical Jesus!). "Even this 'picture of Christ' in the New Testament, of which Kähler and Tillich speak as though it were independent of criticism, can be abstracted only by an act of historical imagination."12

            Harvey proposes his own alternative, drawing on the thought of H. Richard Niebuhr. He suggests that an image of Jesus may function as a revelatory paradigm, an image "cast up" by the original event (whatever that may have been, and Harvey admits we cannot know). This image "does illuminate our experience and our relationship  to that upon which we are absolutely dependent." "The power of the Christian message is mediated through the image of Jesus. It is this image which the Christian finds to be a reliable one for relating himself to the Beings around him and to the power acting in and through all Beings."13  To be thus effective, the image need have no connection with historical facts, though there may be reasons for thinking it does.14  It seems to me that Harvey's alternative is more consistent with Tillich's desire to deliver faith from the threatening tentativeness of historical judgments than is Tillich's own answer. In fact, Harvey's model naturally follows from Tillich's statement that all faith can guarantee is its own experience of the New Being mediated by the picture of Jesus Christ. To go any further, as Tillich tries to do, and to conclude that this picture must represent a historical individual is to make faith responsible for a theoretically debatable historical judgment. And as long as faith guarantees that its own experience is truly that of the New Being under the conditions of human finitude, isn't this enough? Does faith somehow need to believe that the effective catalytic picture also came from a factual experience of the New Being in conditions of finitude, that of a historical Jesus? Tillich himself hints that such a belief is not a necessary implication of the experience of the New Being. He indicates this when he allows that the New Being is at work even where Jesus is not known at all.

            So does the joke with which we began accurately depict Tillich's opinion? In one way, no, for he obviously believed in the historical existence of Jesus. In another way, yes, since with Harvey's correction of Tillich, Tillich's thinking would be compatible with a denial of a historical Jesus (which some aver that in private he admitted).

            Finally, it may seem odd for Tillich to sound so concerned as if to find some way of hermetically sealing off faith from tormenting doubt. Isn't he famous for claiming that faith includes doubt and is by no means antithetical to doubt? Indeed. But remember Tillich's typology of doubt. He has no respect for skeptical doubt, that cynical ennui that cares not to commit itself to any belief or cause, whether because of prior disillusionment or just laziness. He has great respect for methodological doubt, the epistemological tool of both scientific and historical investigation. He believes, of course, that faith neither faces a threat from such scrutiny nor has any right to suspend such doubt (and in the former case, we would be dealing with the intellectualistic distortion of faith, while in the latter we would be suffering from the voluntaristic distortion of faith). The only kind of doubt relevant to faith is existential doubt, the nagging uneasiness that one's commitment to a concern as one's ultimate concern may possibly prove to have been idolatrous, as when an idealistic campaign worker for a reformist candidate finds he has wasted his efforts on one more corrupt politician.

            It seems to me that the sort of doubt relevant to the historical Jesus problem would be existential doubt, and it would take this form: do our hearts condemn us as we examine our own ostensible experience of the New Being? When we look to the examples of our co-religionists and forbears in the New Being, in the Christian community, do we really behold evidence of a New Being, or are we allowing slogans to substitute for reality?  The relevant (and perhaps terrifying) element of doubt occurs not on the far end of the historical/experiential corridor, the long chain which stretches between our experience and the gospel portrait of Jesus as the Christ, but rather on the near end. Tillich took for granted that we have a transforming experience of the New Being based on encounter with the Jesus-picture (Galatians 3:1); doubts began to arise as to whether this portrait was historically sound. And the threat (which faith, by its nature as ultimate concern, should not have to fear) was that of methodological doubt. Tillich sought to quiet that doubt by reasoning backward from the supposedly sure experience of the believer to the powerful efficacy, hence historical soundness, of the first cause of our experience, the portrait of Jesus. He ought rather to have located the threat of doubt in the eye of the beholder of the Jesus-portrait: are we sure we have contracted the happy contagion of the New Being? Perhaps Christ is not our ultimate concern, despite our protestations of devotion. Or perhaps the Christian confession is not what it is cracked up to be, hence an idol. These would be appropriate existential doubts. 


1. Wilhelm Herrmann, The Communion of the Christian with God (Philadelphia: Fortress press, 1971), pp. 72, 76.

2. Martin Kähler, The So-called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress press, 1970), p. 108.

3. Suppose it turned out that, as some have suggested, "Jesus" was at first a title and had come to supplant the savior's birth name, now lost. Or suppose it was someone else who first manifested the New Being, but Jesus got credit for it, as in Michael Moorcock's novel Behold the Man. But there may be unintended consequences to Tillich's view. Suppose it turned out it was not Jesus on the cross but someone else at the last moment, like Simon of Cyrene, as Basilides thought? Would it matter? Some accused Bultmann, with his talk of the "das" of Jesus, regardless of the "was" of Jesus, of embracing docetism. Tillich might be ripe for the same accusation.

4. Herrmann, pp. 77-78.

5. Kähler, pp. 63, 88.

6. Paul Tillich, Preface to Kähler, p. xii.

7. Kähler, p. 79. Cf. Descartes' insistence that, as an imperfect mind, he could never have dreamed up the shape of a perfect circle, so it must have an independent existence outside his mind, etc.

8. Herrmann, p. 75.

9. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology. Vol. II. Existence and the Christ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 114, 115. One is reminded of Bultmann's contention that one may know about love from reading romance novels, but one can know love for oneself only by entering into a relationship with another, and so with authentic existence. The secular existentialist may grasp the idea, but only the Christian may experience it.

10. Ibid., p. 113.

11. As if the belief in a historical Jesus behind the miracles and legends of the gospels were not already a mouth-full of a historical judgment! One suspects a dogmatic agenda when Bultmann questions the sanity of anyone who would venture to doubt the historical existence of Jesus. He wants, like Tillich, to seem to be starting at square one when he isn't. The scholarly debate over the Christ Myth theory has only grown more vigorous.

12. Van A. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer: An Essay in the Morality of Historical Knowledge (NY: Macmillan, 1972), p. 249.

13. Ibid., pp. 282, 283.

14. Think for instance of the powerful portraits of Jesus rendered by modern fictive gospels like Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar, Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ, and Dostoyevski's "The Grand Inquisitor" parable.

CopyrightŠ2005 by Robert M Price
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